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To fans in his native England and around the world, singer-songwriter Frank Turner is
known for his deeply personal songs and evocative lyrics. We caught up with Frank
to chat about his post-hardcore punk roots, his current band The Sleeping Souls,
his biggest influences, and his songwriting process.

zZounds: You were originally the vocalist for Million Dead, a post-hardcore group. What was it about the hardcore punk scene that piqued your interest? Has that ethos shaped you as an artist?

Frank Turner: I was into heavy and noisy music as a kid -- Iron Maiden were my first love. After that, I got into Nirvana, and started wandering vaguely in the direction of punk and hardcore via stuff like Green Day and NOFX. I think part of the appeal for me was that I felt pretty socially alienated as a teenager, for whatever reason, and the mixture of aggression and acceptance at the heart of punk rock and hardcore meant a lot to me. The driving points of the ethos of punk, as I understand them, remain centrally important to me, personally -- music, energy, iconoclasm, honesty.

What led you to embarking on a primarily acoustic-based project after Million Dead's dissolution?

Million Dead ended pretty unpleasantly and unceremoniously. The year or so of the band's existence wasn't much fun. Once all that was done, I knew I wanted to keep touring and making music, but I didn't want to be in a band and I wanted to do something different creatively, to cleanse my palate, as it were. I'd also started listening to stuff like early Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young and so on, and in the middle of it all it seemed like an interesting idea, at least, to try playing an acoustic guitar and doing shows that way. After a couple of experimental shows, I just felt like I'd found my niche in life and in music.

While you're known as a solo artist, you've transitioned into having a full-time backing band, The Sleeping Souls. How has your approach to writing and performing changed with the addition of other musicians?

Well, I always had an idea that I wanted a band to play with, to have music consisting of more than just a voice and a guitar -- even if that is the musical and conceptual backbone of what I do. That said, finding a great band, and being able to afford touring and recording with them, is easier said than done. There are advantages to being a solo artist with a band, in terms of control, but it also means I bear the financial burden. Anyway, once I found the right guys -- and this is the only band I want to play with -- I guess my approach has changed somewhat: the arrangement process once the songs are written is basically collective now, and when I write, I write with them in mind. I also would hope to have changed somewhat, regardless, over 5 albums and 9 years! But at heart, it's still a solo project.

When writing new material, do you bring incomplete song snippets to the group, or more developed arrangements? How does collaborating with other artists shape your songs? What are the pros and cons you see to writing individually or with a group?

I write the songs on my own, for voice and acoustic guitar. Then I take them to the band and we discuss arrangement, experiment with some different ideas, see how they feel. I retain power of veto, but I don't want to do down the contribution of the guys I play with. They're great players and have a great feel for the songs; for making them as good as they can be. So I basically have the best of both worlds at the moment. If you write entirely on your own, there are moments when you have no field of reference -- no walls to bounce ideas off -- which can be a bad thing. The guys are very honest with their opinions about my material; there are times when I don't agree, but it's good to have that context there.

Tell us about the process of production when in rehearsal with The Sleeping Souls, or in the studio with a producer.

With the band, we kick things around endlessly, usually in soundchecks -- we tour so much that rehearsals are rare. Producers, well, it changes from one person to another. I guess we collectively try to be open to suggestion -- there's no point in hiring a producer otherwise -- but at the same time, both I as an individual and we as a collective have spent a lot of time on the songs before anyone else gets into the room, so things are usually in pretty good shape.

An idea for a song has just materialized in your head. Which guitar or other instrument do you reach for first? What sort of recording gear do you use to capture ideas?

Guitar, always. If I'm stuck on something, can't see a way through for an idea, I might try the piano, but I'm not very good at it. Capturing ideas is generally a mental process for me. If you can't remember it, it's probably not much worth remembering. A little while later down the line I'll do vocal and guitar demos, usually with a friend in London, and then we also listen to arrangement ideas which we cook up with the band -- we can record our sets and soundchecks through our monitor board, which is invaluable.

Your albums tend to be centered around concepts: England Keep My Bones was a tribute to your homeland; Tape Deck Heart was about deteriorating relationships. Is there a solid theme coming through in your next batch of songs?

Yeah, there are themes emerging. I don't write with them in mind or write towards them -- that seems a little prog rock to me. But I do think that a theme tends to naturally emerge within a set of songs written in a certain time period. It's a little too early to say what the next batch is going to be about!

Your latest album, Tape Deck Heart, was your first recorded outside of England. Any reason for the change of scenery? Do you feel that the new location had an effect on your songwriting or the recording process?

The songs were written on the road, all over the place, like everything since the first record I did. We ended up recording in California because that's where Rich Costey wanted to work, at his studio. I was a little reluctant at first, simply because it's such a cliche to decamp to Los Angeles at the first whiff of success. But in the end it was kind of immaterial where we were working -- we were in the studio every hour we could be, really.

Some of your songs, like "Glory Hallelujah" and "I Still Believe," address spirituality and religious beliefs -- or the lack thereof. What's the church's role in your music?

Uh, apart from "Glory Hallelujah," none. I'm stridently atheist. That said, of course there are secular collective spiritual experiences, of which rock'n'roll shows are one obvious example. But the church, per se, is nothing to me, personally.

Tell us about "Amy," a character that is referenced in at least three songs -- "Tell Tale Signs," "I Am Disappeared," and "Reasons Not To Be An Idiot."

Amy is a real person, though that's not her real name. She's someone I have a long and convoluted history with. And I suspect we're done now -- she didn't much like the last record.

Your songs are clearly very personal. Being so open and bare has drawn your audience to you -- but does it have any unintended consequences? Is it ever difficult to share your music with strangers -- or with those that know you and know what you're writing about?

I try quite hard to be careful about the dividing line between the personal and the public. I try to write in an emotionally honest way -- that seems the best approach to me, and the empathetic side of art is interesting and important to me. But I don't want to literally hand my diary over to the general public, partly because I want to have some privacy, and partly because I actually don't think that would constitute interesting songwriting. The knack is, if I can be quite so trite about it, to find a way of saying something that feels personal to a lot of different people. That's what I try to do, I guess, though it's not quite such a conscious process as that. All of that said, there can be weird moments, meeting people who assume they know me personally from my songs who can be a bit over the top; also, there have been rare occasions of songwriting impacting other people, which is something I'm very uncomfortable with.

Is there a song or a set of lyrics from your catalog that has particular meaning to you?

Yeah, there's a few. "I Knew Prufrock..." has a special place, partly because I think it's the first really good song I wrote, and partly because it captured a time and a place, a magic little moment in history, that has since passed, and which I miss. "Broken Piano" is also a special song for me. I think there's some bona fide poetry in those words somewhere; it captures how I felt at the end of a long relationship well -- that sense of defeat, of finality.

What about your influences -- are there lyricists or musicians you particularly admire for the way they deliver their message or emotions? Any songs or lines by others that resonate with you?

There are many! How long have you got? Townes Van Zandt for simplicity, Springsteen for bombast, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows for emotional engagement, Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap for rawness, and of course John K. Samson and the Weakerthans for, well, everything.

Tell us about your decision to pursue music. Was there a moment when it went from a hobby to a full-time pursuit?

No -- music was, since I fell in love with it at age 10, the only thing I ever really gave a f*** about. The rest of the world just fell away then. I'm not saying that it was inevitable that I'd be successful from that moment, but it was inevitable that I'd give it a try. My childhood friends are not surprised in the least with my career choice.

Think back to the first song you ever wrote. How old were you? What instrument were you playing? Did you record it?

I think I started messing around with "songwriting" pretty early on. I changed one of the chords in "Knocking On Heaven's Door" (which I thought was by Guns N' Roses at the time, to my shame) from A minor to A major and thought of myself as a songwriter. There are some tapes in my cupboard of songs and demos with bands when I was about 12 but they're pretty horrendous to me now. Hopefully they won't see the light of day!

If you had to pick one guitar for the rest of your career, what would you pick?

I guess I'd pick a guitar that Patrick Eggle built for me, from a tree in the village where I was raised in rural Hampshire, southern England. It's an amazing guitar; it's very personal to me, plus I did just over 1000 shows with her. She's pretty f***ed now, so she stays at home -- Old Faithful, as I call her -- but she's my go-to. Such a great piece of wood and wire.

If you weren't a musician, what would you be doing? What's your second calling?

I'm a history nerd. I'd be trying to be a history teacher.

Frank Turner's album Tape Deck Heart is now available digitally through iTunes.

Listen now »
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